“letterpress” as a verb

On a scale from 1 to 10, how much do you cringe about when you hear letterpress used as a verb?

“I letterpress all my work.”
“This is a letterpressed invitation.”
“My favorite activity is letterpressing.”

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As an old-timer (75), I would rather see the traditional usage continued, but I do realize that language is dynamic and changing, and letterpress terms are changing as well, at least for some.

In the beginning, the single word “printing” meant printing by letterpress because there wasn’t any other form of machine printing. Even after lithography (also called offset) became widely used, and up until at least WW2, the term printing still meant letterpress printing. For instance, my family printing firm’s billhead was titled “William Haedrich & Sons, Printers and Lithographers.” Eventually “printing” became more of a generic term referring to printing in general. At that point, it became necessary to identify letterpress printing as such, because “printing” didn’t refer to letterpress specifically any more.

If we compare the terminology for lithography, to lithograph something, or to be a lithographer, was terminology which was used early on. That being the case, it is somewhat surprising that to letterpress something, or to be a letterpresser, was terminology which never caught on until recently (and I must admit I still cringe when I hear or read it).

And so in a way, we’re back where we started. We started with a single word for letterpress printing, “print” or “printer” or “printing” which could be a noun or a verb, and we are back to a single word for letterpress printing, “letterpress” or letterpresser” or “letterperssing” which could also be a noun or a verb.

Geoffrey is correct, yet I still agree with kellypress.

Having spent a long time in my working life around people who knew a lot more about printing than I did, as the official historian of a large agency (that also happened to be a very large print shop) I found that it went a long way toward having some credibility if I took the time to learn the lingo. I saw it not only in practical terms (if I was taken seriously it made it easier to do my job, a big part of which was figuring out all those funny terms) but also as a matter of respect for the generations of printers who handed down their knowledge (and the lore and love) of the craft. So yes, I do understand that language evolves, but I agree with Bill and kellypress. It makes me somewhat sad that folks don’t feel that learning the “native tongue” of a specialist craft isn’t as important or as compelling as any other process we do as craftspeople. So perhaps more of a frustrated sigh than a cringe.

12. Call things by their correct name.

“The do-hickey that tightens my quoins”.

I agree with George Barnum. It is a lack of respect to the craft and to those who have gone before us and made the letterpress process what it is. And it is personal to me, because my family probably goes back in the printing business as far as anyone’s family here (maybe with a few exceptions). My great grandfather started his printing business in 1868.

In my volunteer “job” working in the 1860’s print shop at Westfield Heritage Village, I take pains to inform the visitors of the correct terminology, and of our working procedures, such as what goes into putting a newspaper page together, or how a book is bound. Some of them are very interested, too, especially the graphic designers.

On a separate but related subject, while it is disheartening that some of the new people produce printed work with a bare minimum of technical knowledge, it bothers me much more that they do this with little or no knowledge of safety. For instance, even such basic things as taking off all jewelry, not wearing loose fitting clothing, tying back long hair, and when using a rag, making it into a ball in your hand with all the corners and edges tucked in so they can’t get caught on anything, are not known. (And there are many more safety guidelines of course).

I think we do, as Geoffrey indicates, have to allow for new people to use different terminology if they choose. Use of the word as a verb or adverb may be a stretch for me, and I would not do it. I would think “This invitation was printed by letterpress,” would be more acceptable usage.

I do think many of us would describe ourselves as “letterpress printers’” and that would hardly make us cringe, I think.

It is not much different than “I was gifted this press,” which does make me cringe. Having been taught that this should be expressed as “I received this press as a gift,” or “This press was given to me.”

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press

John, “gift” being used as a verb is accepted by no less than the OED, and has been attested as far back as the 16th century. I think that’s a battle LONG since lost! There are also such words as walk and host that have long had both noun and verb meanings. Noun/verb conversions are a common thing in English and the language has been evolving into a more contextual one (that is, that the status of a word is more dependent upon context rather than strict rule) for centuries.

But then, as Calvin said, “Verbing weirds words.” And yet, the sentiment is still clear…

Michael Hurley
Titivilus Press
Memphis, TN




Yes, I’d have to say you’re probably correct, but fortunately for me there are the other options I listed, so I won’t be forced into the “verb-alization” of gift.

I assume we all have usages that grate us the wrong way. One of Iowa’s great private press printers, Carrol Coleman, of the Prairie Press, had an issue with folks pronouncing the word protein as “pro-teen”, he preferred “pro-tee-in”. I still follow his example although the vast majority prefer “pro-teen”.

John H.

Too late to change back now chaps, with self taught letterpress persons writing blogs and books for other self taught persons to learn mistakes from (sorry, can’t bring my self to write printer). Look at Etsy to see how much crap is being produced.
I did a five year apprenticeship in the early 70s, when deep impression work would be sent back by the customer for a reprint, my indentures tell my I am a platen press minder I might become a letterpress printer one day.
I ignore any misuse online now and just correct the people I teach letterpress printing to.

Nounizing a verb

Related? Perhaps

I learned that one puts packing under the tympan sheet. To compensate for lesser heights of elements in the form, one went through a process of make ready. The action was doing something. Thus a verb.
Some have said “you have to put in some more make ready”. Maybe it is like make-up that you do put on.


Times change. The new way of letterpress is with a deep impression. And all of the blogs and books are written by “self taught persons” because the old books and “OLD”. New styles and eras come and go. I sell on Etsy, I don’t see the products that are listed “crap”. People purchase letterpress work because of the look and the feel. If that wasn’t around, I know no one will buy a “letterpress” invitation with no impression. You can just use a printer now.

I’d be grateful printing presses are still around. Bringing new life to an old method.